Influence of the mother tongue
The Power of Culture


Linguist Guy Deutscher has been examining the question of how our mother tongue influences our way of thinking and our powers of perception. spoke to this language expert from Israel about speaking habits and the power of culture.

Mr Deutscher, the way language affects our view of the world has been the focus of debate for quite some time. Does it really make a difference what language we write and speak in?

First of all language does not have a restrictive influence on our way of thinking as has been postulated in the past, in particular by American linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and his followers. It was Whorf who maintained that the speaker of language X was not able to understand the concept Y, for example the concept of time, because there was no word for it in the language X. There is however no evidence to support this whatsoever. The speakers of every language are able to understand any concept expressed in another language, even if it entails a somewhat longer explanation. Our mother tongue therefore does not place any constraints on our intellectual horizon.

In your book “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” you claim however that the way we perceive things, for example, a painting by Chagall, is most definitely dependent on our mother tongue. To what extent?

Linguist Guy Deutscher Linguist Guy Deutscher | © C.H. Beck In principle speakers of all languages are able to visually differentiate all the colours of the spectrum from each other, just like you and me. The reason I chose Chagall as my example is the fact that there is a lot of blue in his pictures. What is decisive for the way we perceive the colour blue is the fact that we have a word for it in our language. Many languages however do not see a difference between blue and green. Researchers have come up with the following findings: When our language teaches us to differentiate, for example, between the colour blue and the colour green, our brain is encouraged to slightly exaggerate the visual differences between the nuances. Therefore, when people from different cultures are looking at a painting by Chagall at the same time, they all to a limited extent perceive the same thing, but their culture determines how differentiated their perception is.

Intellectual habits develop from speaking habits

Language is also conducive to our spatial orientation. Whereas we describe everything with the help of a “left-right-back-front” system, in Australia there is a tribe of Aborigines that uses the heavens to orient themselves. How does that work?

Imagine you are taking part in a dancing lesson and the teacher tells you to do the following, “Put your northern hand in the air and move your southern leg eastwards, then take two steps to the south and turn your head to a westerly position.” People whose mother tongue uses this system develop an infallible inner compass that works day and night; it is as if they have had a GPS chip inserted into their brains. This type of language has dramatic effects on the way the speaker perceives the space surrounding him or her.

How easy or difficult is it to learn a system like this?

You have to start very early to get a perfect grasp of this system and to master it in a way that is natural, effortless and not conscious of it. In the early years of lives our brains have an enormous plasticity, which it then step by step slowly loses.  For example, we know that only children are able to learn a language and not have an accent, while adults are no longer capable of this. Yet another example of culture exerting huge power - much more than most people would assume.

Articles are more than just grammar

Anybody learning German as a foreign language always has problems with the German articles. What role does gender play? Does it matter if a word is masculine or feminine?

It is usually assumed that the gender, i.e. the sex, of an inanimate object is merely a grammatical entity. Now, however, it turns out that the - mostly arbitrary - grammatical genders of objects and/or subjects in the German language influence the speaker’s everyday perception and associations. Incidentally this applies to most of the other European languages, except English. Experiments, for example, have proven that Germans attribute more feminine characteristics like “elegant” and “slender” to a feminine noun, like “die Brücke” (the bridge). In contrast Spanish speakers, for example, more often attribute masculine characteristics like “strong” and “powerful” to bridges, because for them bridges are grammatically masculine.

Can these speaking habits be overcome?

When we learn a foreign language, we have to learn a whole new series of speaking habits. Right from the start we are faced with the more technical aspect of the new system of sounds and then we move on to the vocabulary, followed by all the idioms and phrases that are used in the new language. I would not, however, use the word “overcome” to describe this process.

Why not?

Because it is not a matter of getting rid of all the habits. It is more a case of adopting an extra set of alternative modes of expression. We all know how difficult this learning process is due to the fact that our speaking habits have all been so internalised. Yet if we persevere, we will be rewarded with inestimably precious knowledge and attain a much more comprehensive view of the world.